Ashford Castle: A Country Escape in the Emerald Isle

The Reagan Presidential suite, 
located in the oldest wing of the castle, has an original fireplace, an antique four-poster bed 
and floor-to-ceiling views of Lough Corrib.

Built in 1228 by the Anglo-Norman de Burgo family after their defeat of the O’Connors of Connaught and later used as a county retreat by the Guinness family, Ashford Castle was converted to a luxury hotel in 1939. Today — 80 years after it first began welcoming guests and four years after a $75 million head-to-toe refresh by its current owners, Red Carnation Hotels — it remains one of the Emerald Isle’s most celebrated country escapes.

The castle is situated on 350 wooded acres at the edge of Lough Corrib in Western Ireland’s bucolic County Mayo. That means that guests can readily frolic in fresh air, be it by horseback, on the golf course or on a boat ride around the lake. If you’re an animal lover, don’t miss a Hawk Walk with an expert instructor from Ireland’s School of Falconry, which is located on Ashford Castle’s grounds. For an hour, guests can stroll around the estate with an instructor and a few of the school’s resident Harris hawks. As visitors walk, a pattern emerges: The birds soar overhead and swoop into treetops, then land on guests’ gloved arms before taking off again. The falconry school, which is the oldest in Ireland, will debut a brand-new, expanded facility this summer. Guests can enquire about Hawk Walks on site, but because they’re popular, Ashford staffers say it’s best to book in advance by e-mailing [email protected]   

Afternoon tea is served at the Connaught Room, where pastry chef Paula Stakelum delights with her sweet and savory treats.

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If canines are your preferred animal companions, plan to rise early and meet James Knight, co-founder of the Falconry School, in the castle’s lobby for an 8 a.m. walk around the grounds with his giant, five-year-old Irish wolf hounds, Cronan and Garvan, and his German Shepherd, Doug the Pug. (Tip: If it’s raining or muddy out, borrow a pair of rubber boots and a jacket from the front desk.) Reservations for the walk aren’t necessary, but we suggest checking with the front desk the morning of to make sure the walk is on. If you oversleep, don’t worry: Cronan and Garvan make an appearance inside the castle later each morning. It’s a perfect photo op, especially if you’re traveling with kids. For assistance arranging any kind of outdoor activities — clay shooting, archery, zip-lining, cycling, tennis or off-road driving, among others — reserve ahead with Michael Leahy, the concierge at Ashford Castle ([email protected]).

Ashford Castle, situated on a 350-acre Estate, offers a range of activities, such as horse riding, fishing, falconry, shooting, golf, cycling and kayaking.

Whether you’re in between outdoor activities or want to spend a day moving at a slower pace, there’s plenty to do inside the castle, too. Relax in the cozy cinema, which is decked out in red velvet and shows both current and classic films. Weekly movie lineups often include The Quiet Man, the 1952 film starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara that was filmed on the castle’s grounds. In the afternoon, head to the Connaught Room for Afternoon Tea. Ashford’s pastry chef, Paula Stakelum, won the 2017 Valrhona Patisserie Championship, and once you taste her sweet and savory tea-time treats, you’ll know why. Celebrating a special occasion? The indulgent experience is made all the more festive when you opt for the Champagne version. (There’s also an option for kids.)

The single most relaxing place to while away a few hours is at Ashford Castle’s spa, which opened in 2015 and is home to a relaxation pool, a steam room, a hammam, a fitness center and five treatment rooms. We’re fans of the spa’s deeply relaxing Elemis facials and massages, but, with spa staff eager to help guests plan a program and product mix that’s tailored to their individual needs, it’s impossible to go wrong. Michelle Ryan is the spa manager, but insiders suggest booking spa treatments via [email protected] or when room reservations are made.

Ashford Castle has 83 rooms and suites, each of which have been individually designed.

Whether you’ve worked up a big appetite on the tennis court or feel like having a light lunch after the spa, you’ll find whatever you fancy here. On the cool, drizzly afternoon of our arrival, a bowl of hot tomato bisque in the Drawing Room warmed us right up. In addition to enjoying lunch bites from its bar menu, the room, with its large windows, lake views and plush sofas, is also a cozy spot for a morning cup of coffee or tea. For a casual dinner in a dramatic, medieval setting, make sure to dine at The Dungeon, located on the castle’s lower ground floor. Fresh Irish seafood is a mainstay on the bistro-style menu, but everything from steak to stew to veggies are offered, too. Ashford Castle’s formal restaurant, the George V Dining Room, was built by the Guinness family in honor of the royal’s visit in 1905. Today, it’s open for à la carte and buffet breakfast in the morning and dinner in the evening. With its live piano music and tuxedoed servers — jackets and ties are required for men — the restaurant is a popular place to celebrate special occasions, though dining here is occasion enough. Whatever you order from Chef Philippe Farineau’s menu, Chief Sommelier Robert Bowe will ensure you enjoy a perfectly paired wine. Note that dining options include à la carte, tasting, luxury tasting and even vegetarian menus. Make your restaurant reservations through [email protected] or when you’re booking rooms; but reach out to the hotel’s events manager, Sharon ([email protected]), to arrange a private dinner in the castle’s wine cellar — a perfect space for a family, group of friends or a romantic dinner for two.

The George V Dining Room is the Castle’s formal restaurant, which was built in honor of the royal’s visit in 1905. 

No visit to Ireland would be complete without a drink of whiskey. If you’re up for a nightcap or pre-dinner drink, arrange a tasting in the castle’s Billiards Room or on the cigar terrace ([email protected]). Ashford has partnered with Midleton Very Rare Whiskey and Waterford Crystal to launch its own exclusive, bespoke cask, No. 70345, an American virgin oak barrel that was filled with a medium style pot still. Take our advice and try it — you might even want to bring home a bottle of your own. If gin is your spirit of choice, be sure to book Ashford Castle’s new Gin Tray Tasting Experience, in collaboration with Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin. For a good, old-fashioned pint of Guinness, an Irish coffee, or a classic or creative cocktail, head to the Prince of Wales Bar and take your pick from its storybook-style menu.  

As for where to rest your head, we suggest booking one of Ashford Castle’s two top accommodations. The Hideaway Cottage, a private, standalone structure on the castle’s grounds, sits directly at the edge of Lough Corrib and is staffed with a dedicated assistant. In the castle building, we loved The Reagan Presidential Suite, named in honor of the late, former president, who stayed at Ashford in 1984. Located in the oldest wing of the castle, the suite has an original fireplace, an antique four-poster bed and floor-to-ceiling views of Lough Corrib. The split-level suite has two bathrooms and can be combined with two adjacent rooms to create a private, three-bedroom wing of the castle. Amenities for guests of the suite include 24-hour housekeeping, welcome Champagne and chocolates, a complimentary bar, canapés and a nightly gift delivery — enough to make you feel like a president or a prince. All 83 rooms and suites are individually decorated and delightful in their own way; just be sure to specify your preference in view, size and amenities so that Ashford’s reservation staff can help you choose the right room. 

The Spa has a relaxation pool, a steam room, a hammam, a fitness center and five treatment rooms.

Director of sales and marketing Paula Carroll and her reservations team, Magda and Ann (011-800-346-7007; [email protected]), handle all bookings. Be sure to let General Manager Niall Rochford ([email protected]) know if VIPs are en route. Note that high season is May through October, and that guests book as far as a year in advance to stay during Christmas and New Year, when the castle is at its
festive best.  

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